Fight, Flight Or Choke

You're serving but down 2-4 in the third set.  At this point, sensing that the end of the match is near, some players dig down and fight for it.  Other players just fade and give up.  What's the difference?  Is it character?  Is the fighter born with some innate determination while the player that takes flight is inherently weak?  Maybe, but these are issues for philosophers and psychologists.  Competitive athletes need to answer the question differently. 

Where mental toughness breaks down, there are some consistent themes.  One of them is that players focus on things they can't control, and because the issues then become so large and daunting, they seem hopeless.  A player serving down a break at 2-4 can't be thinking about breaking back the next game.  The first order of business is holding serve, and that's going to be accomplished point by point.  Similarly, if you're down and you become fearful, anticipating the loss, your imagination has leapt ahead toward things that are beyond control.  The finish, at 2-4, could be a long way away, indeed, and your opponent has something to say about it.  You can't control the end result.  What you can control is the first stroke of the next point, planning where the serve will go, whether you're serving and volleying or staying back.  The player focused solely on the immediate future, that next stroke, is the fighter.  She may not win, but she's allowing herself the best opportunity.

Choking is similar, except it's always from a winning perspective.  You're up 4-2 and serving, and suddenly you get so nervous you can hardly breathe.  What's the deal?  You're in the driver's seat; all the pressure is on the other side of the net.  Not if you're thinking about the end result, of not blowing it, not letting the match get away from you when, clearly, you're supposed to win.  Again, this player is thinking about things beyond his control.  Shut that voice down.  Narrow your focus.  Let yourself fight by concentrating on the one thing you can control:  the next stroke.

c Keith Shein